Skip to main content

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto

The promise of democracy is that the people shall rule. Not the executive, not the legislature, not the judiciary. Simple. But democracy is an ideal, not a practical reality, and it depends on institutions to make it function. When those institutions are compromised or nullified, the democratic promise is at risk of being broken.

Are we witnessing such a moment now? The current president of the United States is exposing just how rickety the institutions of that democracy may be. At the very least, Mr. Trump is showing the world the flexible limits of executive privilege. In the same week that saw Vladimir Putin returned to office in what most sane people would consider a rigged election, Mr. Trump summarily and pettily celebrated the dismissal of a public servant, Andrew McCabe of the FBI, two days before his pension kicked in. He also managed, as New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz noted with dark glee, to make Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil billionaire, into a sympathetic figure by firing him as secretary of state a few days earlier.

Mr. Tillerson, according to the mocking report, “bid a gracious farewell to his associates at the State Department and announced that, even though his government career was at an end, he would never stop trying to harm the world as a private citizen.” The same might be said about other members of the revolving-door White House staff, not least a lying three-star general and an accused money-launderer.

But the actual problem is no satire. This is bold-faced gangsterism. I’m pretty sure Mr. Trump would fire Mr. Borowitz if he could, and fire me and most of the people I know if he cared. It’s what he does: the “chaotic” management style that his defenders still praise on the Sunday morning punditry pageants. There may be things in favour of chaos, in fractal mathematics or Dungeons & Dragons, but as a manner of governing it is proving to be a dumpster fire. Imagine if Operation Overlord, the global airline system or the moon landing were run along the same lines.

Mr. Trump is acting as if none of this matters, and tweeting his usual daily brew of personal attacks and media denunciations. Okay. But then the question is, what is this doing to the structural bulwarks of liberal democracy? A huge part of the problem is routine ignorance. As comedian Colin Quinn joked in his one-person political show, Unconstitutional (which predates Mr. Trump’s rise by several years), the U.S. Constitution is “the one thing that we’re all experts about, which is amazing because none of us have read it.”

Local angle: Mr. Quinn, measuring degrees of political madness, suggested that Canada was the quiet Emilio Estevez brother to America’s drug-fuelled “winning!” Charlie Sheen.

History teaches us stark lessons about the fragility of liberal-democratic politics. The right-wing legal philosopher Carl Schmitt is the dark angel of this wisdom. Germany in the first part of the 20th century proved all too vulnerable to the depredations and weakness of complacent governance. Then Greece, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Belgium, Poland – that’s just Europe, and not even all of it. There is no fool-proof guarantee against the stepwise anti-democratic subversion of political life.

This is no ordinary fool. There’s not much mental profit in arguing about the definition or applicability of terms such as “fascist” or “dictator.” Also, Twitter is not radio or television, but that’s not the issue either. Well-intentioned populaces, who thought themselves immune to political crisis, because fat and free, have been duped before. This has been true over and over again, in fact, and likely more often than citizens have been right to trust the institutions of the state.

Here’s another thing, from down here on the ground a long way from Mar-a-Lago, or wherever else people make hush deals with “adult film” actresses, and (perhaps) suborn lawyers to do so, and then (perhaps) seek to dismiss the one person who might honestly investigate connections to Russia. It’s this: Our anger is part of what makes us weak.

Angry discourse is the rule of the day, the self-justifying ritual of insulting dismissal that everywhere passes for moral righteousness. Here’s a note from everyone’s psychiatrist: Being pissed off doesn’t make you more right. Anger in discourse is the resort of last resort. Have an argument, make an argument – of course. Raising your voice adds no validity to your points and might even act to undercut them.

No doubt that last paragraph will make some people angry. But let me make the point that many of us have been urging for decades. Civility, not unruliness, is the radical option in democratic politics. People say: no change without rage. I say: no lasting change without respect and a willingness not to say all the things you could say.

A comments-board moderator at The Atlantic recently wrote that engaging with the people there felt like “an abusive relationship.” Of course it did. That kind of shadow discourse isn’t democracy or useful free speech. It’s just making everything easier for the people who have real power.

Bottom line, fellow democrats: Please stop feeding the troll within. It might be a start.

Interact with The Globe